Media junkets from hell


THE RECIPE: Take whatever disparate journalists you can lure, stuff them into a plane. Fly them down to East London. Take them on tour. Feed them. Encourage them to drink. Throw free goodies at them. And hope like hell they give you good coverage for the new logo you’re unveiling. Story by Mandy de Waal.

I’m standing in line with a gaggle of other journalists waiting to pick up my gift – a Slazenger wind breaker – when I think of the ‘red envelope’ practice in China. I hear from a friend of mine who does PR for an international marketing agency that there are very distinct ways of handling media relations in the People’s Republic.

If you are planning a media tour, a press conference or want to meet a member of the Chinese press then it is expected that you hand them a ‘red envelope’. Said envelope contains cash that ostensibly is for the journalist’s travel costs, but is essentially a bribe. If you don’t offer the ‘red envelope’ then don’t expect coverage or to see that member of the media again. However if the envelope is discreetly included in the media kit, you are damn sure guaranteed coverage.

Not that the Eastern Cape Tourism Board and their public relations agency, Hip-Hop Media, were doing anything wrong. Spending R1 million to launch a new logo is fair practice in the tourism industry which relies heavily on credible editorial coverage and a strong online media foot print. Plying the media with gifts is also pretty much standard practice.

What made me feel ‘dirty’ was the continual reference the management of the Eastern Cape Tourism Board (ECTB) and their PR agency made to “getting good coverage”. It wasn’t innuendo. Or a hint. Or a suggestion. The ECTB and Hip-Hop Media demanded good coverage. They stated on several occasions that since the media had been transported, toured, wined, dined and given the ‘red envelope’ (plied with free gifts) anything less than great coverage could be considered traitorous.

Sitting in a freezing, drafty tent after being frog marched to a press briefing at 22h30 following an evening of insane drumming and appalling industrial theatre studded with poor sex jokes and sad caricatures, I started thinking about brand experience. How if you’re launching a new brand the best way to do it is to ensure the media you want to champion that brand have a brilliant experience.

To my mind this means spending that R1m really well. How about forgoing the ‘red envelopes’ and throwing old school PR out the window? Packing away the drafty marquees in the middle of winter, retiring the odious speeches, the predictable three course meal and open bar. I would suggest taking the media on a real adventure and letting your province sell itself. Then for goodness sake pay attention to detail and ensure every part of the experience speaks to your brand promise of friendliness in what is an “adventure province”.

This point was driven home when booking into our accommodation after the late night media briefing, when cold and hungry there were about 15 members of the media desperate to flop into bed. We received the cold shoulder from the person at reception who was obviously put out at having to wait up. When I advised the management the next morning that this was ill considered, the management simply shrugged off the complaint.

2010 is just around the corner. Let’s hope we get a whole lot more professional in the next couple of months before those good folk from CNN, The New Yorker, The Guardian or BBC head to our shores.

Mandy de Waal is an Associate Editor at

MarkLives invited EC Tourism and its PR agency to respond to the story in writing. Only EC Tourism responded.

From: Veliswa Mhlapo
Sent: 20 July 2009 14:58
Subject: RE: Response required : ECTB story

Dear Mandy,

My sincerest apologies for not adhering to your 8am deadline. I have been to (and still am actually) trying comprehend if you really had such a terrible time in the Eastern Cape that you had to title your piece “media junket from hell” and write so negatively about the event. Unfortunately, that experience was completely the opposite to what most of the other journalists experienced.

Thank you for drawing our attention to the aspects of the launch that you did not enjoy. We will indeed pay attention to these aspects as we gear up for 2010 FIFA World Cup.

It is always very useful to get feedback as we continuously strive to improve our service in the province. The fact that you went to bed ‘cold and hungry’ saddens me- especially because we ‘wined and dined’ you and made a concerted effort to ensure that none of our guests went cold and hungry.



EC Tourism


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7 replies on “Media junkets from hell”

  1. Dear Mandy,

    Sorry to read your about your experience – it can, and does, happen on many a media tour… especially those catering for a diverse base. BUT, that said, I have been on two wonderful tours with Eastern Cape Tourism – taken to wild and remote places and as you suggest – the place sold itself!! No coercion needed – I wanted to write about the places I went to.

    Your suggestions seem valid – but perhaps you arrived with the wrong expectation of the event you were covering? Media Tours are gruelling; it is a job, not fun.

    If the “red envelope” treatment feels uncomfortable, perhaps journalists, grouped as bunch, need to take a good long hard look at their own ethics and principles – as many would have been disillusioned if the said perk was lacking. *We* are as much at fault as any PR company…

    Best wishes
    Shaz (sharon Davis)

  2. The breathtaking part of Eastern Cape Tourism Board response is that they don’t seem to understand the power of perceptions. Subjective though they may be. The seemingly explicit pressure to provide coverage is amateur night at the opera and indicates a massive lack of social sophistication on the part of both client and their agency. In the world of new and social media, they’ll continue down this path at their peril. Also interesting to note how a concluding link in the value chain (the offhanded receptionist) can really mess with the brand. Ouch! May I buy you a decent (low cost but nourishing!)lunch? And I promise you won’t even have to write about it. ;-)

  3. Mandy was looking for a juicy angle for her story and what better way to achieve that than to critisise and lambast the very people who flew her, accommodated her and wined and dined her and even gave her a “red envelope”! As for desparate – you are in indeed.

  4. I think many of Mandy de Waal’s points are valid. I often see PR companies wasting huge amounts of money on nonsense. Recently, for example, an up-market hotel chain decided to send me a press release on a luxury hotel they were opening. They sent a driver in white gloves in a limousine to deliver the press release. Since nobody knew he was coming, he was neither permitted to enter the parking lot at The Star nor the building. The driver was then dispatched to my home the next day to repeat the rigmarole … apparently he was supposed to mix me a cocktail or something the way it’s done at said hotel. Poor man. I was not home. Then my domestic phoned me frantically on my cellphone as they demanded she track me down … I panicked and cut short what I was doing, thinking there was an emergency … so I wasn’t best pleased to discover it was simply a PR stunt. Who knows what the hiring of the limo etc cost … all they needed to do was call me or e-mail me a well-written informative press release with an explanatory note. Another hotel chain sent me a lovely orchid which I cherish … but no explanatory press release, nothing else … I called the JHB hotel to thank them but nobody knew anything about it ….
    PRs should aske journalists and editors what they need (we are busy people) instead of forcing us to sit through long meetings etc. It’s called communication!

  5. @Sharon Davis: Hi Sharon. Thanks so much for your comment. I love the Eastern Cape having spent many years there at ‘varsity in Grahamstown. As such I spent loads of time in PE, East London, Kenton and Port Alfred. You are absolutely right in that the area sells itself. So a R1m logo launch is a construction that was ill advised, and I believe what is at issue here is a lack of professionalism from ECTB who were obviously given poor advice from their publicity and attendant agencies. A pity because it is a fantastic brand and that R1m could have been spent a lot more wisely. In terms of the freebies I always defer to my editor given that as a freelancer I cover everything from hard core investigative journalism to lifestyle stories and marketing stories. I think it is difficult to have a blanket rule for this. What works for Financial Mail or Sunday Times would definitely not fly for “Top Billing” or Sawubona. But it is tricky because freebies are often seen as an inducement to write “good copy” or uncritical stories. This of course flies in the face of what journalism is all about. As the fourth estates journalists are there to act in the public interest.

    @Clive Simpkins: Hi Clive. You have hit the nail on the head with the comment “amateur night at the opera”. The ECTB and their PR and publicity agencies need to realise that 2010 will see a slew of high caliber media professionals landing from heavy weight titles that have reach and influence around the world. At that time we need our national brands and those who champion them to act responsibly and professionally. Not to beg for good coverage in exchange for freebies. More so because we have a spectacular country from a tourism perspective and we shouldn’t seek to diminish that with shoddy PR.

    @Kagiso: You miss the point completely. Media relations shouldn’t be about “wining and dining” journalists in an effort to ‘buy’ good publicity. It should be about being confident in your product or brand and allowing that product or brand speak confidently for itself without publicity gimmicks or inducements. The Eastern Cape is an awesome province – why spend a million on gifts, wine, food, entertainment, tents, drumming, industrial theatre, quad bikes, climbing walls etc ad nauseam. Events should not be about how much money PR agencies and gifting companies can make in fees and commissions. Marketing and PR events should be about what’s strategically best for the brand (in this case the Eastern Cape province). After this event I found myself questioning who benefited the most from this launch? The Eastern Cape brand or the bottom line of the ECTB’s PR, eventing and publicity agencies.

    @Caroline Hurry: You make some telling points. I think if PR people took the time and effort to understand what journalists want and need, instead of thinking of billable gimmicks it would cut out a lot of the problems that are raised in this article and your response.

  6. In that case you should have politely declined the invitation and requested instead tha the PR agency should send you a press release. I think it is high time that journalists like you take the high road from the get go instead of accepting the invitation, getting into your car to go to the airport, getting onto the plane, eating and drinking all the free food, sleeping in the sponsored room, packing the “freebies” into your bag, get into the car that has possibly been paid for by the the Eastern Cape Tourism Board and THEN only decide to get onto your high horse and criticise the whole experience! It would have been an honourable
    act to decline the invitation and the “red envelope”. It is journalists like yourself who give the rest of us a bad name!

  7. Hi Mandy

    I have been following this article and comments with interest. It comes down to perception, what is clear from the article is that you were thoroughly peeved at being pressured into writing something positive and were not treated with the respect due to a member of the media. The flip side of this coin is that a group of people had worked very hard to put together an event which would showcase what our beautiful province had to offer, possibly against this background, the ECTB staff were anxious that some good press would emerge.

    I attended the event and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, everything was well planned, I was warmly treated by all I came into contact with and I enjoyed the gifts too. Seated where I was at the open entrance to the marquee, did not feel cold at all, the food was wonderful and it’s a pity that you went home both cold and hungry, the heaters were effective right to where I was sitting and you simply had to ask for one of the many heaters to be moved closer to you, and for additional food.

    I do hope that your next visit to the Eastern Cape is far more enjoyable, the people are wonderfully warm and hospitable.

    All the best


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